There’s this scene in the Simpsons that I think all Monkees fans can relate to. In the season six episode titled “Fear of Flying,” Marge Simpson is trying to conquer her aviation phobia by going to therapy. Her therapist asks her what the first bad thing she can ever remember happening to her and Marge goes back to a memory of her first day of school. Flashback to a pint-sized Mage, with a much smaller blue beehive, climbing on the school bus holding her brand new lunchbox featuring her favorite pop band, The Monkees. She sits down next to a dark hair little girl who looks at Mage and goes “Ewwwww. You like the Monkees? You know they don’t even write their own songs.”
“They do so,” little Marge says in defense, clutching her lunch box.
“They don’t even play their own instruments,” the little girl smirks. “That’s not even Michael Nesmith’s real hat.”
Well, in reality the little animated girl bullying Marge isn’t entirely correct to her claims, but it’s a rhetoric that Monkees fans have been listening to ever since the Monkees made their debut in 1966. Never has the legitimacy of a band and its legacy been more debated or divisive than that of The Monkees. Despite being one of the most beloved and long-lasting pop groups in the history of music, with twenty songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and three number one songs, The Monkees still suffer from music elitists and critics peering down their nose at them from their vinyl draped towers and telling their fan base that its “not real music.” After nearly sixty years, it’s a debate that just won’t end.
I remember my first shocking encounter with Monkee backlash as a kid. We were at a bonfire with some friends of my parents, and there was Beatles music playing on the tape deck one of my mother’s friends had brought. After the Beatles tape was played over and over a few times I innocently spoke up and said “Hey, I have a Monkees cassette in the car we could listen to!” Instantly, two of the adults around the bonfire distorted their faces. “That’s bubble-gum music” one of them said in disgust.” “The Monkees aren’t even a real band. They were a Beatles knock off” the other said. I remember freezing in shock. Obviously, the rejection by the adults hurt my pre-teen feelings, but more so I couldn’t understand why anybody could dislike the Monkees so much. I didn’t know the “politics” around their legacy. All I knew was their music, and it was so good!
But for me, whether they were a “real band” or not, the Monkees was a very important gateway band for me. Although I was paying attention to music very early as a child, falling into Monkee fandom in the mid-1980’s was the first time that I strayed from the easy path of the Billboard Top 40 to something a little left of center. It was the first time I did a deep dive into a band from a different era and opened my mind to an entire world of music. The Monkees are the reason I am the music listener I am today.
I first discovered the Monkees in what I think was a fairly unusual way. In the summer of 1986, I spent a few weeks visiting my grandparents at their farmhouse in Northern Ontario. I was eleven years old, and although I have beautiful memories of that summer trip, in reality there wasn’t a lot to do other than read books and draw pictures, and sometimes watch a little television, which only had two channels on it. The television was rarely on because my grandmother didn’t like the sound of it, but in the afternoon, I was allowed to watch reruns of “Gadget” with Sally Field, and maybe something else but I don’t remember what. Well, in rotation was an advert for a “special TV offers” to buy a Monkees greatest hits record set. Now I had never seen the Monkees TV show or had I heard one of their songs right through, but the musical hooks in the song snippets played in the commercial really grabbed me – “I’m a Believer,” “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone,” “Mary, Mary,” “Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” It was pop gold, it got in my head, and I wanted to hear more! I was hooked.
Now what I didn’t realize at the time was going on was that The Monkees were having a resurgence of popularity with reruns on MTV. We didn’t have MTV in Canada (at least without a satellite dish). But The Monkees were suddenly fairly mainstream again, and although none of the kids in my school were talking about them, you didn’t have to turn over many rocks to find Monkees stuff in the local shops. Not long after I returned from my summer vacation, my mother gifted me with a copy of The Monkees Greatest Hits on cassette, which she had purchased from the local K-Mart store. The cassette tape did not disappoint me. It became an instant favorite. Their music played constantly in our house. Later that year, when I received my first “boom box” for Christmas, I got a copy of “Then and Now….The Best of the Monkees” which was most of the same songs but with two brand new recordings featuring Mickey Dolenz on lead vocals – a great tune called “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” and a cover of the Paul Revere and the Raiders classic, “Kicks.”
I recently was able to find that exact commercial I discovered the Monkees from on YouTube, and after seeing it for the first time in over thirty years, it all came back to me so vividly. But what I found interesting is that the commercial was selling “The Best of the Monkees….Then and Now” although only a fraction of the songs advertiised are actually on the copy of the cassette I had as a kid, and the vinyl copy I own now. After searching for a bit more information I found that there was a special two record version that actually was only avaiable via mail orders and TV offers as stated in the commercial. This version had an expanded track list of Monkee classics including selections from the film “Head,” but did not have the new studio tracks recorded by the Monkees in 1986. It was also simply called “The Best of the Monkees,” dropping the “Then and Now” tag. A rare Monkee collectable, it has a far stronger track list for Monkee die hards, but without any nod to their 80’s comeback.
Well, by the time I went back to school after the summer was over, I was in full Monkees fever, and my musical interests took a massive shift away from the path that the other kids in school were on. Most of the boys at school were listening to heavy metal groups like Guns n’ Roses, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue and the girls liked their New Kids on the Block. But I came to school proudly wearing my Monkees t-shirt my Aunt had bought me for my birthday, and the other kids snickered, but I paid little notice. I always prided myself on going down my own path anyways. When kids laughed at the entertainment I liked, which happened a lot, I figured that was a them problem and not a me problem. In all honesty, even when looking back in retrospective, my interests in things were always a bit left of center than the average middle school kid.
But the music landscape was changing around 1987, and its not a surprise that I was losing interest in what was on the after school music video shows (this would eventually change around 1989. Read our Vinyl Story on Kate Bush – The Sesnual World  for that stoaay). I’m sure interesting music was being generated, but I started to shift back in time. As I’ve written before, from a young age I had been listening to the 60’s pop albums that were left behind by my mother’s older sisters, but now I was running down rabbit holes that were distinctly my own in search for more vintage groups and retro sounds that made me feel the same way that Monkees music did. A big part of my musical education at the time was buying cheap 1960 compilation cassettes from the local K-Mart which had songs by Jan and Dean, The Association, The Loving Spoonful, The Raiders, The Vouges, The Shangri-Las, Sam and Dave and so on. I was reading what information I could find on these groups from various “music encyclopedia” reference books at the school library, which was really the only way to get info on these bands in a pre-internet era. I started taking chances on groups like The Turtles, The Mamas and the Papas and Nancy Sinatra. I was right on the scene for Roy Orbison’s comeback in 1988. Soon I was in high school and discovering The Doors, The Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Velvet Underground and, eventually, this little band called The Beatles. Yes, for me The Beatles were one of the last bands that I fell into during the first phase of my music exploration.
But the band that shot me down that musical journey was The Monkees. They opened a door to an exploration and interest in music that has continued for my entire life. I discovered the Monkees at a perfect time and at a perfect age where they sowed the seeds to a true love for music, and to dive deeper, and reach further, than the music that was more easily accessible to me. I don’t care what the critics say about the legitimacy of the Monkees legacy, but they were the perfect starting point for a pre-teen record collector.
To me, there is little doubt that the Monkees managed to inspire countless other music fans and professionals as a gateway band as well. Bono, Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe were all fans of the group. Frank Zappa hung out with them and appeared on their show, and even the Beatles themselves were aware of them and met with the Monkees when they toured England in 1967. Their music continues to be used in television and films such as “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “WandaVision,” “Shrek,” and most recently the Academy Award Winning film “Women Talking.” But what is extraordinary about a band which “isn’t a real band” is that even with most of their members now deceased, The Monkees legion of fans continue to grow and continue to love the music as much as they love Mike, Mickey, Davy and Peter. Just as it was for me, the Monkees were a gateway band for countless of other music fans and will continue to be. Musical groups rise and fall, and songs hit the top of the charts only to fade into obscurity, but The Monkees are one of those special groups that stick in the hearts and minds of the public forever.